The last few months have presented unprecedented challenges for the courts system arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant restrictions. President of the High Court, Ms Justice Mary Irvine indicated that she was eager to see cases progressing as much as possible and a number of hearings and motions were heard in the latter part of the last term, although there was an understandable reluctance from some witnesses to attend court and we certainly did not see the usual level of July busyness.
The increased use of technology in courtrooms and the placement of remote hearings on a statutory footing have been prioritised by the Courts Service in an attempt to keep the lists moving.
With all of this in mind, we take a look at what can be expected of the final court term of 2020.
The new legal term was due to commence on 5 October 2020. However, a number of cases have now been listed for hearing in September in order to work through the backlog caused by the COVID-19 restrictions. A number of callovers are due to take place from the end of August onwards to try to deal with these lists as efficiently as possible.
The effect of Chief Justice Irvine’s statement in July encouraging practitioners to settle cases where possible, and the effectiveness of the regional “settlement hubs” arranged throughout July in response to the rule against settlement talks being held in the precincts of the courts will become apparent following these callovers. However, the usual end of term settlement “flurry” was not apparent this year. The number of cases resolved during that period is likely to be significantly less than last year. There are a number of factors contributing to this:
The logistics of negotiating settlements over the phone where cases involve multiple defendants or where there are complicated issues at play that are more effectively teased out in person
Delays in obtaining medical reports required to assess quantum in advance of settlement. However, we have noticed a return to relatively normal timelines in terms of obtaining both medical appointments and reports recently and we hope that will continue
In terms of the court experience itself, the previously imposed restrictions will continue into the new term and for the foreseeable future. Limited numbers in courtrooms, social distancing, perspex screens, the maintenance of contact tracing lists and the face mask advisory have all become part and parcel of attending court.
Remote hearings under the Civil Law and Criminal Law Act 2020
The Civil Law and Criminal Law (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2020 (the Act) was signed into law on 6 August and Justice Minister Helen McEntee has recently signed commencement orders. Most of the provisions of the Act will come into effect by mid-September.
The Act provides that the court may direct, on application of the parties or otherwise, that a civil hearing can proceed remotely. While some remote hearings did take place during the last term, the Act places the conduct of those hearings on a statutory footing.
Many courtrooms have been adapted to facilitate video link evidence as part of remote hearings or for individual witnesses in a physical hearing to give their evidence remotely where required. The obvious advantage of this is that it circumvents social distancing requirements and courtroom capacity issues. Video link evidence is also very useful where a witness may have health issues that prevent them from attending the courthouse. However, remote hearings are not always suitable for personal injury cases, particularly where a number of witnesses are required to attend court.
For that reason, the effectiveness of this aspect of the Act where personal injury cases are concerned remains to be seen. It may prove more useful for minor rulings and certain types of motions where witnesses are not generally required.
The Act also provides for the electronic filing and issuing of court documents. This is a very welcome development and is something that practitioners have been advocating for for some time.
The various restrictions imposed in response to the pandemic are likely to continue into the foreseeable future. The Courts Service and judiciary are adapting in line with the constantly evolving requirements and are pushing through reforms now that have been under consideration for many years. Expanding the use of technology in the courts system and expediting the mainstreaming of remote hearings will assist in improving the overall efficiency of the courts in Ireland.
However, despite these developments, it is likely that we will continue to see delays in getting cases heard and obtaining motion dates in the coming months.
For more information, contact a member of our Insurance & Risk team.
The content of this article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal or other advice.